Updated: Apr 11
We should all ask ourselves, is our survival and progress not dependent on an interlinked and progressive morality (more so than mere survival and reproductive strategies)?
‘The progressive development of the animal kingdom, and especially of mankind, is favoured much more by mutual support than by mutual struggle’.
Peter Kropotkin, in Mutual Aid a factor of Evolution, 1902
Much has changed in the last two years and most certainly since Kropotkin published his work in 1902. Change seen, not only due to the Covid outbreak but also due to advances in the biomedical sciences, society, its values and expectations.
We are today thanks to a progressive science more than ever at the mercy of our DNA (a single strand of RNA emphasized this fact in 2020 with lasting effect), how we assimilate and deploy such new understanding is entirely up to us. We are but a species in an evolution driven by its quest for multiplication and procreation. We also know that we live in an interconnected world, where distrust and misinformation have become unwelcome parts of life and pose a significant challenge to both our current and future wellbeing.
In genetics and biochemistry rapid progress in recent decades has led to a greater understanding of the chemical activity of proteins and their relation to the information stored in cellular DNA. Scientists were traditionally encouraged to develop an interpretation of biology that attempted simple solutions to the daunting convolutedness of nature. They were drawn to see living organisms as biochemical computers executing a set molecular program. They viewed that program as an algorithm encoded in genes and materialised by proteins. Within this blueprint-based framework, medical researchers focused on identifying the rogue genes and proteins that caused diseases, and on finding drugs to deactivate them. The problem with this reductionist approach was, and still in some instances is, that it doesn’t consider how biological cells, organs, tumours and organisms entangle themselves with their environment, combining and recombining and collectively using their structures at every scale (from the nanometre to the metre and beyond) to keep on living, evolving and surviving in environments that are equally variable.
Credit is due, the reductionist approach to treating disease was justifiably fuelled by decades of revolutionary drug discoveries – antibiotics, chemotherapy and other ‘miracle drugs’ – that led to steep improvements in life expectancy. But this 'comfort-zone' in the chemical broth we created unexpectedly spilled over into the environment in the form of byproducts, pesticides and extra waste— bringing along with it a new list of ailments, seen as an escalating incidence of cancer, allergies and cardiovascular diseases.
This century has seen a sharp decline in the number of effective new medicines produced. Literature states that between the years 2002 and 2014, a total of 71 new cancer drugs appeared, of which only 30 – found to prolong life in patients with solid tumours by an average of 2.1 months, compared with older drugs – have gained approval from the US Food and Drug Administration. The costly and largely ineffective trial-and-error methods used to identify new drugs, and the escalating complexity and difficulty of conducting clinical trials, are partly responsible for this downward turn.
Undaunted by the dogmatism in molecular biology, many scientists in recent years started questioning the reductionist models of life and disease while turning their attention to how it genetically interacts in different environments.
The capacity of biological organisms to evolve resistance to new treatments serves as one example of the inadequacy of a mere reductionist approach as one of the most significant new public health concerns we face. We now realise the chemically ridden world around us, in a climate that is also rapidly changing, will continue to complicate and plague any reductionist model ,inevitably now understood as driven by a more mobile DNA. Antibiotic resistance, as an example, has become one of the biggest public health threats to confront medical scientists, veterinarians and doctors; meanwhile, the ability of cancer cells to build defences against chemotherapy has stalled some overambitious pharmacologists searching for cancer cures. Bacteria and cancers on microbiological level are teaching us the same lesson that we are learning in other aspects of our relationship with nature.
Clearly and almost to be expected, an evolutionary based life resists a reductionist approach. It relentlessly bounces back with complex behaviours that thwart our optimistic strategies to dominate it.
Proteins are the building blocks of life. In nature, they result from the careful and deterministic folding of molecular strings consisting of combinations of 20 different units (there are 22 essential amino acids). They can take on any imaginable shape and function at the nanoscale. In fact, scientists still don’t know how many different proteins are in our bodies (perhaps it is unknowable), since our cells could have the capacity to create, modify and evolve proteins as and when they are needed. Proteins work as light detectors in our eyes, electrical switches in our neurons, in our muscles, and act as rotary nanomotors to catalyse chemical reactions. They are responsible for detecting and reacting to the signals, forces and information from the environment in which an organism resides and interconnect and for creating the structures that allow movement. The extraction of energy from food (sunlight to chlorophyll) or the destruction of pathogens are all protein dependent. No human-made artificial technology can dream of such capacities. We can however try to learn how life does it, and continuously progress in in our understanding while responsibly employing this new knowledge in a responsible manner.
One of the essential features of all life is having some method or methods to be perceptive of change around it and relay such input to its DNA. It must constantly prepare and be able to function while facing uncertainties and unknowns in challenging environments. It has to have a memory of what it learnt in the past that can serve across generations. Evolution, and all the chemistry it is made up of interact and is witnessed in emerging science as having this ability, and it does so in a principled manner. Without biases. Life (evolution) on all levels, interconnect and perceive information from its surroundings to evolve a reliable physical sphere of existence—not only to survive but to better interconnect, in full regard of even its smallest components. It must gather reliable information to prepare for unknowns in an uncertain future based on its perceptions of a changeable and challenging environments.
It is when these interactive spheres get hijacked by unreliable information or biases that we get confused and face a precarious future. We can only remedy this when, and if, we become perceptive of and have access to reliable information. The more progressive our perceptions and this information and knowledge become, the more important the value of fairness and mutual support also become.
It is by harmonising and operating wisely in reliably interconnected spheres of perception without biases in any of the three spheres (physical reality, uncertainty and the unknown) that we can confidently prepare ourselves for the future. And it can only be when we measure our progress in terms of the morality of our actions in this newly gained knowledge, that a much better world will become a reality for all of us.
Theodore Holtzhausen, author of Spheres of Perception
Blog article, 10/4/2021